Not in Our Name – Innocence Lost in Arabia

I must admit to feeling thoroughly depressed at the violence accompanying protests across Libya, Egypt and Yemen.  Watching video previously posted by murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens describing his enduring relationship with the Arab world only serves to emphasise the nihilistic aspect of his death.

Not in Our Name

Certainly the US lacks the moral high ground in the Middle East, a fact that many in the West need to be reminded of, but a reality of common currency amongst the region’s populous for decades.  To be clear, from an Arab perspective US foreign policy is synonymous with perpetuating despots and arming a belligerent Israel, either in the cause of economic self-interest, strategic advantage or domestic political expediency.

Comments posted following editorial on the protests don’t bode well.  The usual zealots splutter, up to their necks in a rising tide of bile, yelling from opposing shores of a sea of ignorance.  Then, perhaps more worryingly, there are the ideologues, trenchant, calm and annoyingly confident.  Why?  Because God is on their side you silly…  And finally, liberal voices from Christian and Muslim intelligentsia, preaching understanding, trying to build bridges across the religious divide – though it’s impossible not to ask yourself who is responsible for the divide in the first place?

Certainly the provenance of the straight-to-video film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, cited as a catalyst for the embassy protests is far from clear.  The ‘producer’, one ‘Sam Bacile’ (too close to ‘imbecile’ to be true) doesn’t exist.  ‘Jimmy Israel’ and ‘Steve Klein’ are also quoted as being involved, at this rate it won’t be long before ‘Donald Duck’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ are credited as Associate Directors.  In common with most of those involved in the protests, I haven’t seen the trailer or the film, if it even exists – the actual insults it contains, whether scripted or dubbed have transcended news to become unassailable articles of faith.

The angry reaction by the young men of the Arab Street is as frightening and tedious as it is predictable, but mobs are never pretty.  ‘Death to Obama!’ – really guys, given the Republican alternative, be careful what you wish for.

Who benefits from this polarisation?  Revolutionary change in North Africa came not as the result of radical Islamic epiphany.  Though the incomplete nature of some ‘revolutions’ is rightly questioned, in the first instance it was Arab youth, energised by information and secular idealism that kicked out long-entrenched bogey men.  However, years of repression have stifled the growth of democratic political structures, and post-revolution the mosque and the military are left as the only functional national organisations, the latter weakened by association with the ancien regime.  In 1979 the Iranian middle classes didn’t help oust their corrupt and dictatorial Shah in order to become subject to an equally corrupt and humourless religious cabal – but it happened, and too easily democracy can become theocracy.

Abu Faris talks, I listen. Benghazi May 2011
Abu Farris talks, I listen. Benghazi May 2011

I’m reminded of an encounter I had in May 2011, in a suburb of Benghazi known as Ras Abaydah.  Sipping coffee in a ‘neighbourhood watch’ tent I spoke to local teacher Abu Farris.  ‘None of the Arab leaders know the meaning of freedom,’ he declared, ‘None of the Arab leaders know what ‘people’ mean.  None of the Arab leaders know what a President is, they just read it, they have no respect at all for this word “freedom”, everybody feel it.’  Though his delivery already verged on the polemic he was just getting started…  My cup was topped up, Abu Farris left his untouched, ‘You know, I believe that the West planted this… this creature (Gaddafi) in Libya in 1969.  All Arabs believe that these leaders were planted by the West.  This is why Al Qaida, Bin Laden or somebody the same makes a lot of trouble.  Not because we hate the West, but because we know that the West planted these leaders.  It is now their duty to throw these leaders away.  Just let us get rid of them, once we get rid of them, then the West will be forgiven by the Arabs.’

I hope he was right.

Class Struggle

Good Afternoon,

A few weeks ago I was at Newcastle Airport, sitting at the gate ready to board a Jet2 flight to Heraklion, surveying the wealth of tattoos, false eyelashes and celebrity hairstyles, and suddenly feeling all of my 46 years.

Dwell Time
Dwell Time…

Unlike most other low-costs Jet2 should be congratulated for assigning seats during check-in in an effort to avoid the boarding scrum, a phenomenon revealing the true contempt in which some airlines hold their passengers.  That said, gate staff still must engage stealth mode close to boarding time lest sudden movement cause a stampede of eager passengers and result in the death of someone disadvantaged by being polite.

On this particular day the game was up, a plane load of punters smelt fear and rushed forward as one, only to then stand shuffling pointlessly in line, fiddling with their self-printed boarding passes – proof that CSE origami was worthwhile after all…

These days getting on a bus is more civilised than taking a low-cost flight and it’s not all the result of exploding underwear fetishists, and the legion dangerous idiots with guns, knives and nail clippers.

As regional airports go, Newcastle is one of the best yet surely there are ways that don’t cost the earth for airlines and airports to make flying economy a pleasanter experience.  BAA is being forced to sell Stansted by the Competition Commission and Ryanair has expressed interest – don’t all clap at once.  Surely a case of being careful what you wish for…

If anyone has bright, ideas feel free to comment – I’ll post suggestions here.

Have a good week.

Website of the Week  – This piece of radio is from 2010, and you may have heard it already.  However, there’s little to touch an Irishman when he’s inspired, so listen and enjoy the Republic’s President Michael Higgins as he exhorts Tea Party ‘shock jock’ Michael Graham to ‘be proud to be a decent American rather than just being a wanker whipping up fear…’

Bulgaria – Land of the Lev

Until recently Bulgaria was pushing hard to embrace all aspects of the European Union, including adoption of the common currency, the Euro.  That was then.  The Euro zone crisis has forced a reassessment.  As with many former Eastern Block states the post Communist honeymoon has long been overtaken by the harsh daily reality of free market economics.  Newly critical perspectives on both past and present are sometimes cynical, one-sided and solely supported by hearsay, but nonetheless they are common currency.  Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel again through Bulgaria.  The following text recalls two encounters with local residents that together offer a snapshot of contemporary life.

BorovetArriving at the ski resort of Borovets in the Rila Mountains, I check into my hotel before taking a turn around the town.  Flurries of white flakes swirl in the icy breeze and it’s difficult to stand on the compacted snow. It’s 17 below, unseasonably cold even for a Bulgarian winter, but despite this the lower slopes are busy with skiers.

Borovets’ planned development started with a few state-owned hotels during the Communist period, and ended with the advent of capitalism, when the gaps in between were filled by a hodgepodge of log cabin emporia.  Many of these are bedecked by strings of flashing lights and non-too-subtle advertising promising ‘All Day Breakfast’, ‘Kiddie Karaoke Corner’ and ‘Exotic Show’ – though, it has to be said, not all in the same hut.

Numbed by cold I search out some warmth, mounting the steps to a cabin remarkable for its plain exterior.  Inside the waiter is dressed formally in a waistcoat, white shirt and black trousers.  A radio plays, and of the other tables only one is occupied by chatting Bulgarian girls.  A fireplace glows comfortingly with a mountain of wood embers, and nursing a generously frothy Zagorka beer, I start to thaw out pleasantly.

A heavily built Bulgarian man enters and perhaps because he’s also alone, sits close by, soon engaging me in conversation.  I ask him about life in Bulgaria.  He hesitates and pulls a face, as though he’s chewed something bitter.  ‘We have a big problem with gypsies, that nobody wants to talk about.’

‘You’re telling me’ I think, and brace myself for a sustained salvo of bar room polemic.

Meat, cheese and wine‘It was the Socialists’ fault,’ he says.  ‘Gypsies travelled during the Ottoman time, there was a bridge between Europe and Asia and it was safe to do so. The Socialists made it so no one could travel, even between neighbouring states.  The gypsies didn’t know what to do.  And now the government just gives them money and welfare.  They’re fucking like rabbits, having seven, eight kids – it’s a business.’

‘A business?’ I ask.

‘Their weddings are not official so the women are paid by the government as single mothers, whilst there are very poor Bulgarians, working and paying tax that supports these gypsies.’

‘So does everyone feel the same about them?’ I query, looking for some balance.

‘Look, for sure at every Bulgarian wedding there will be gypsy musicians.  No one wishes gypsies harm.  But no one likes them.’

I sip my beer – it’s starting to taste a bit flat.  Then, the lights flicker and the radio dies.  The waiter lights candles.  The chatting girls continue chatting.  Outside, a dog limps by in the snow.

Further south in Sandanski, close to the Greek border, there’s no snow or ice.  The area’s sheltered position fosters a renowned microclimate and its bubbling mineral waters have for years drawn those in search of cures.

Thermal WaterAmongst modern décor, stylish furniture and fashionably uniformed attendants I meet Dr Lilia Bakalova at one of the town’s swish new spas.  Built to pamper those who’ve prospered in the new Bulgaria, it’s a far cry fry from facilities once prescribed to Bulgaria’s proletariat.

‘What’s it’s like to be a doctor here?’ I enquire.

Before 1989 you had to be a member of the Communist Party to advance your career.’ She says. ‘I was lucky.  I travelled abroad to promote the benefits of our mineral waters.  I saw life elsewhere and wondered why it was so different.’ She leans forward tossing me an incredulous stare.

‘Aren’t the hospitals better now?’ I ask.

‘Sick people are sick people, all over the world,’ she says. ‘Certainly, we have new machines and drugs.  However, it’s my opinion that the mental health of the population is poorer now, because of stress.  Before everything was secure.  We had enough.  Now it’s a struggle.’

‘And the future?’ I venture.

‘Professional people are not well paid,’ says Dr Bakalova.  ‘Since we joined the EU they have all moved abroad.  But my life is here, and as you see I work extra hours at the spa. And you know, Greece is only 20 kilometres away. I was there yesterday.  Since the crisis they’re having lots of good sales…’

Driving to Aleppo

Team Desert Bradts
After a full two hours of exhaustive preparation we were off...

In November 2011 as part of the Petra Challenge I drove from Newcastle to Jordan, crossing from Turkey into Syria and staying in Aleppo. Later, continuing onwards via Beirut and Damascus to Amman.

Driving a British car across Syria’s land border is at the best of times potentially problematic. In the middle of a period of domestic unrest when foreigners are viewed with increased suspicion it’s a process many would consider foolhardy. However, despite this myself and co-driver Chris Tweddle, found our way through ebullient traffic to Syria’s most historic, if well-worn, hotel.  Since then events have rather overtaken the humour of my recollection, but anyhow here’s what happened…

Jostling in an unruly queue, I wait. Laughing, untidily uniformed immigration officers contemptuously process passports, consult lists, and draw hard on their cigarettes. ‘What is your job?’, ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ – I answer truthfully if not completely. Even so, the laughing stalls, replaced by uncomfortable stares. My heart shifts a gear. Bang. ‘Welcome to Syria.’ I’m in.

If only it was that simple. The bureaucratic paper chase of vehicle insurance, carnet, and painstaking columns in venerable double-width ledgers that close with a thump, never to see the light of day again, has only just begun. Two hours later we ease away from border control. Aleppo, Syria’s second city, lies 40km south through the darkness.

Foreigners generally conclude that Arab drivers have instinctive knowledge of horn etiquette and the subtle skills necessary to squeeze five cars into two lanes. Indeed, though Syrians are friendly and welcoming, once behind the wheel the genie is out of the bottle and their three wishes are that you hurry up, move over and get out of the way. Foreign plates and a steering wheel on the wrong side confer no special status.

I have a broad idea where to find Aleppo’s historic Baron’s Hotel. That said, upon the second circuit of a now-familiar traffic–choked square it’s time to seek assistance. Stepping into the night, I ask the way in basic Arabic. A wide-eyed, bearded youth engages with me. He rubs his finger and thumb together hopefully and I offer a two Euro coin, and then another… ‘I drive, you follow,’ he says. I jump back in the car and describe what’s afoot to my colleague, Chris. ‘See that poxy white van, the one that sounds like a chainsaw?’, he nods, ‘Well, don’t lose it.’

Thaks you Fuji Heavy Industries
End of the line...

An adrenaline-fuelled, heart-stopping rollercoaster ride ensues, complete with honking horns, belching exhausts, near collisions and a catalogue of Highway Code contraventions. Then, the van pulls over. The driver jumps out, stretches out his arms and in a grand gesture and swings around towards Aleppo’s magnificent mediaeval citadel – precisely not where we want to be. A passer-by asks in English if he can help. He speaks quickly to the white van driver, there are nods of understanding, and we’re off again, helter-skelter through the seething maelstrom. I strain to recognise streets as we drive, but can’t pin anything down. ‘There it is,’ cries Chris in disbelief. Our dragoman stops, dismounts and beaming broadly kisses me on both cheeks – he’s delighted, as we are.

Inside, the Baron’s feels like a cantankerous elderly uncle’s townhouse. A décor of dignified decline is characterised by a yellowing BOAC route map on one wall, an original pastel-coloured Orient Express poster on another, along with a tattered map of ancient Syria. The hotel’s similarly authentic manager welcomes us in carefully enunciated unhurried English. ‘I’m the manager, Armen. We’re rather quiet at the moment so I’m able to offer you a very special rate on Lawrence of Arabia’s room.’ I recount having a beer in the hotel bar a couple of years ago. ‘Yes,’ he looks at me resignedly, ‘I think you would have found us a little busier then.’ I fill in the register and ask if the bar is still open. ‘Well,’ says Armen, obviously embarrassed, ‘As it’s been so quiet we have given the barman a holiday, but I’m sure we can find someone to serve you satisfactorily.’

Armen disappears into a back room. A lady in her 70s hands over a heavy key fob. She looks worried. ‘I’ve grown old with this hotel you know. Even during the war it wasn’t like this. This is a cold war. Some people they say by Christmas it will all be good. Alhamdulillah – By the grace of God’

Benghazi by Bus

Power to the people...
Power to the people - on the road to Benghazi - May - 2011

Last month I travelled to Benghazi, the de facto capital of ‘Free Libya’, in a manner that would make Simon Calder proud. Over two days, a succession of coaches, buses, minibuses, share taxis and otherwise incentivised hotel porters helped me cover the 791 miles (according to the RAC’s trip planner…) from Cairo to Benghazi. En route, even by the high standards of Arab hospitality, I met some of the kindest, most generous and most helpful people I’ve come across for some time. An experience that made me think such a journey should be a mandatory refresher for politicians, lawyers and policemen the world over, highlighting the essential goodness of humanity.

Pasted below are a couple of short reportage pieces I wrote in Benghazi and filed by satellite link on the dates indicated. Both were then silently sat upon by the commissioning paper until well past their sell-by-dates. Some tosh regarding Ryan Giggs apparently took presidence.

Though Libya’s situation has certainly evolved I thought there may remain some vestigial non-monetary value in posting the copy here. I suppose that’s for you to judge…

Benghazi 12th May

Benghazi - May - 2011
Benghazi – May – 2011

‘Here in Benghazi people are dying every day but this news is not given out. I hear it on the street, from the families, but I do not hear it on the radio.’ Mohammed’s father had given me a bed for my first night in an outer suburb of the city. Last night he’d told a story of fear, for the present and for the future – one that we in the West probably don’t want to hear. ‘Even in one house, half with Gaddafi, half with the revolution. Not just the old against the young – it’s a mix, both, you can’t say. When Gaddafi forces entered Benghazi everyone waved the green flag. Now if you ask on the street everyone is with the revolution. People are not free to express their opinions – there is fear. I see Libya as a new Iraq.’

On the Benghazi corniche Mohammed’s bleak outlook is at odds with the new day. Looking out over the Mediterranean, blue sky melds seamlessly with the sea, waves roll in, and canvas tents are driven to wild flapping by the freshening sea breeze. Between the tents two well-used tanks are parked – one careful owner, M Gaddafi. For them the war is over. Children clamber over turrets and gun barrels. Elsewhere, parts of missiles, aircraft, heavy machine guns and RPGs are corralled into an enclosure – weapons used by Gaddafi’s forces to kill Libyans, I’m told. Covering the walls of the buildings opposite, and studied by a reflective crowd, are hundreds of photographs. For the most part young men without fatigues or weapons whose expressions do not foretell death as sombre hand-coloured images of WW1 seemed to – but annotated dates reveal the brutal truth.

Benghazi corniche - May - 2011
Corniche – Benghazi – May – 2011

Following a trail of heady odours through the covered souk I make my way to the bright sunshine and fresh air of the corniche, and Benghazi’s revolutionary encampment – if you’ve seen Al Jazeera’s shots you’d recognise the scene. Beyond moneychangers, glittering jewellery shops and stalls of revolutionary flags, banners and badges a scene of semi-normality is fractured by the uncompromising crack of a nearby gunshot – its reverberations sending shopkeepers and customers into a crouch. Three youths loiter at the end of an alley, one in the process of shouldering an assault rifle – the smell or cordite wafts towards me.

‘How are you?’ Bashir, a former flight engineer with Libyan Arab Airlines, smiles across the crowd. ’42 years, can you believe it? Look at this place, the broken streets, the rubbish. You are asking us to be in good shape after just three months – it’s too much.’ I ask whether enough is being done to assist the Libyan people. Bashir is quick to respond, ‘Some people here they think we don’t like the foreigners, they’ll invade our country. They’re thinking like this because Colonel Gaddafi is saying it to them. We need advice on how to run this country, and the British they are already doing it – it’s not a shame to ask. I have no problem at all to ask British or Americans “Can you help me?” because one day, God knows, maybe we will help them – this is life.’ Bashir continues in a hopeful vein: ‘Now people are free to say what they like – this is freedom. I remember one American guy, I never forget it, he said if you want to say you are Libyan and live in a free country you must have the courage to shout: “Fuck you Colonel Gaddafi! Only then you are right.” Now we are achieving this.’

Benghazi 13th May

Najib - Benghazi - May - 2011
Najib – Benghazi – May – 2011

The volley of shots ended, traders relaxed into a relieved collective chuckle. A prospective customer was trying before buying, letting fly a few rounds over waste ground in front of the burned out Internal Security headquarters – he seemed satisfied. ‘Hey’ it’s like Harlem. You can buy anything here’, offered a smiling young man. Certainly automatic pistols, revolvers, AK47s and M16s, bayonets and bullets were on display, juxtaposed with mobile phones and copy CDs. He was surprised when I suggested that Harlem had changed a little in recent times.

Ears still ringing, I needed a coffee and fortunately in Benghazi’s old city, crumbling though it may be, echoes of Italy are never far away. Espresso, macchiato and brioche start the day, along with that inseparable Libyan male appendage – a cigarette. ‘ “mangeria”, “cucina”, “via” we use all these words from Italian’ says Najib, a 58 year old former soldier, ‘and if someone talks too much we say “musica maestro”’ His friend Fatti, joins in the conversation outside the Bou Ashreen (Father of Twenty!) café. ‘You know I wasn’t surprised that Italy wasn’t the first to help us because they have good relations with Gaddafi, many economic links. What has surprised me is how quickly they changed to the opposite side.’

Fatti continues, ‘But it was the UN Mandate and the British after the war that shaped Libya and we were very grateful for this – it was amazing, I remember it. The UN wanted to make a showcase of Libya. People came from all over the Arab world, everybody expressed themselves, it was free.’ I ask why, if it was so good did Gaddafi’s revolution succeed? ‘That’s a good question’ says Fatti. ‘Many reasons. King Idris was a very old man and the prince was not qualified to take over. There were other factors, other families trying to exert influence and there was the charisma of Nasser in Egypt. I think Gaddafi took advantage of these others forces and the atmosphere using them for his own purposes – he was the wrong man at the right time.’

‘Gadaffi ruined my life’ complains Najib. ‘I was conscripted into the army, at first he said for three years – I was there for 25 years. Can you believe it? Three times I ran away, once staying in a house in Chad for two years, but there were many Chadians in the Libyan army and most of them were spies, so I was caught.’ Najib takes a sip of his machiato and a draw on his cigarette. ‘I wish Israelis and Palestinians would stop fighting, you live here you live here, it would solve so many problems. You see this area, it was Jewish, there was the synagogue – no problem. Then after the Israel Egypt war the Jewish they go out. Now it’s Egyptian Christian church – I know the priest, a friend, very nice man.’

What about the future I ask? Fatti responds quickly, ‘It’s true there are still “Taboor Hamsa” Fifth Columnists in the city, so we must be careful but Gaddafi cannot come back, he is finished here. Today this is, how the Americans call it… our Independence Day.’

Arab Spring

At the risk of appearing … er … irresponsible, and being shot down by those with greater knowledge I’m minded to vent my spleen.  Right now I’m feeling guilty.  If I were  Libyan I’d feel betrayed.  Downwind of continuing debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dazzled by the speed of events, the international community is transfixed by the headlights of an oncoming disaster.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor Barack Obama hides behind righteous UN prevarication, too afraid his legacy may be tarnished by hypocrisy to be decisive.  Along with the usual suspects, despots and dimwits to a man, China and Russia, co-authors of ‘Corrupt and Antidemocratic Regimes for Dummies’, are playing their usual mannered game of passive self-interest.  And taking advantage of this moral vacuum Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich mediaevalist monarchy, has invaded its neighbour to facilitate the crushing of a popular movement for peaceful political modernisation and liberalisation – not in our backyard…

In the UK, political capital is made by opportunist opposition politicians rubbishing failed attempts by William Hague to do more than just talk to a revolutionary Libyan leadership – I’d call that a cheap shot.  The Arabs were betrayed by the French and the British once before, and the Middle East has been paying the price ever since.  On this occasion France and Britain, though impotent, appear at least unafraid to promote justice.

The 2011 Arab Spring may have sprung too soon, nipped in the bud by a late frost of violent repression.  While the world’s good men do nothing Libya’s stage is being set for an inevitable future conflict – echoes of Iraq and the betrayed uprising following Gulf War 1 are unavoidable.

Italy With Kids, Without Sex

An early morning amore is arrested by three small children, only partly unaware of their poor timing, leaping onto the bed like puppies. ‘They’re becoming more intense aren’t they?’ remarks my wife in one sustained exhalation.  Time to get up and at least take pleasure in smelling the Segafredo.

I light the gas and charge the pot.  A gecko patrols airside on the flyscreen, each jerky advance consuming moths still dazed and confused by last night’s lights.  Outside, splashes confirm that childish obsession with parental chastity, not flushing the lav, supporting the Chinese plastic toy industry, losing my tools and creating global entropy has now shifted towards maintaining the swimming pool as an adult-free zone.

Job Done...

My wife drags a chair into some shade and loses herself in a novel written for the blind, at least that’s what the heavily embossed cover suggests.  In the kitchen half a dozen bottles of alarmingly modest Italian wine stand reassuringly shoulder to shoulder – I can lose myself later.

This early the World Service is still audible above static whistles and clicks and with ears plugged and a thumb on the tuning knob I follow the story of a man in a shed who believes that 1936 marked the pinnacle of British endeavour.  He cites automotive manufacturing, scientific prowess, and the quality of valve radio sets to support his assertion – I don’t think he’s got a girlfriend.

I’ve just been shot in the neck by ‘the boy with the plastic air pistol’ – my time is up…

If you’re still inclined to take a family holiday in Italy, even after my recollections, a friend of mine has good quality apartments to let near Montone, Umbria – see As well as excellent olive oil and er… characterful red wine, both produced on site, Ben is happy to expound dryly on life as a foreigner in Umbria.

If you’re after something a little more modest then there’s our place

Curry Paste to Italy

Curry PasteMango chutney – twelve jars, curry paste – ten jars, HP sauce – twelve bottles, basmati rice – 25kg, mature cheddar – a box, baked beans – an entire shelf, brussels sprouts – a sack, dog wormer… don’t ask.  You’d be forgiven for thinking our next stop was a local newspaper photo call followed by a date with an orphanage in eastern Europe.  However, dog wormer excepted, the modest philanthropy of our various Red-Cross-style parcels was destined for Italy and expatriate friends still harbouring a vestigial taste for ‘Britain’.

Like many with continental holiday homes, this time of year heralds MOT runs back and forth to the UK keeping villa cars legally on the road.  In our case a Brit can’t buy a car in Italy without residency and an Italian revisione (MOT) isn’t valid on a UK registered vehicle.  If your MOT expires whilst your car is abroad insurance becomes invalid and the only legal solution is to trailer the vehicle back to Britain.  Internet expat forums are filled by dubiously imaginative solutions to this problem but the most common course of action remains a long drive home.

For Martin and I this year’s MOT Gumball was a reciprocal event.  His car was freshly MOTd and in the UK, mine was in Italy with its ticket fast approaching expiry.  We would be doing each other a favour and free from the metaphorical treacle of encumbering children and delightful though complicating spouses the task was a simple one – drive to Umbria as quickly and cheaply as possible, turn around, drive back to Leicester and Newcastle in similar fashion.

Despite the unexpected ritual suicide of three jars of Pataks whilst loading, after a quick dive into Tesco for replacements we were soon in the outside lane and up to speed.  In Martin’s left hand drive Espace, ‘Daphne’, the sat nav was doing her best to keep us right, and had laid in a course for the Alps, the Frèjus Tunnel and Italy.

Soon our thirst for miles was slaked by kilometres of rainy péage, the companionable reassurance of Radio 4 smothered beneath comic bursts of maniacal accordion music.  However, sustained by podcasts of the News Quiz and carefully selected jazz classics, at around 10 PM we were south of Reims.  Pulling off the road in Chaumont, both Martin and I eagerly tucked in to hearty repast of a shared bowl of peanuts, two beers and the winter Olympics on TV – Hotel L’Etoile D’Or really knew how to put on a welcome.

Leaving before dawn, ‘Daphne’s’ clipped consonants urged us ever southwards, and it was only when Nice began to feature with increasing frequency we noticed our Fréjus and hers were not coincident.  A sharp left turn, an extra hour, and amidst the sodium-lit subterranean gloom of the tunnel a diminutive Euro-starred flag nodded us into Piedmont.
Emerging into brilliant Alpine light, a morning of exquisite caffeine-denial was finally consummated at the counter of the first Autogrill  – queuing, paying, then ordering, due cappuccini e due panini, and that was just ‘Martino’ as he thenceforth preferred to be addressed…

Leaving the autostrada at Cesena, through darkness familiar potholes in the E45 maintained our alertness along the Upper Tiber Valley into Umbria.  As fatigue gnawed hard at our competency (which way around the roundabout?) familiar waymarks saw us through – the dormant emergency mobile kitchen – Italians have their priorities, the everlasting haystack, the empty church of Santa Maria, and atop a final precipitous stretch of strada bianca, with two flat tyres, la macchina vecchia, my venerable Subaru estate parked where I’d left it in October.

By the headlights of the Espace I rummaged for a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa keyring, turned the ignition, and the engine thrummed into life.  Okay, so the clutch was stuck, there was an issue of pneumatic incontinence and mice had eaten both the still-valid MOT and logbook, but otherwise tutto bene.

After a morning checking over the car, a considered circuit of the local supermercato, and an evening in Umbertide appreciating wine and cuisine offered by a former mortuary, with the steering wheel on the right side the morning saw Martino and I heading north once more.

Blue skies and sharp snow-covered peaks larger by the kilometre preluded ritual last orders of cappuccini and panini before 13km of the Fréjus expectorated us into the damp grey gloom of France.  Narrowly avoiding the parsimony of another Swiss motorway vignette adding to my already brightly coloured windscreen collection, we pushed on as far as Châlons-en-Champagne.  A beer amidst the oil-rig chic of nearby La Taverne led to a second in only marginally improved ambience followed by a disorientation tour of the centre-ville.  Smuggling a fragrant bag of frites back into our hotel we surveyed the ‘deux lits monsieur’ but one coverlet.  Sleep was fitful, perhaps I was simply unused to being in close proximity to such hairy eyebrows.  Anyhow, at some point before six AM I turned over, bleary eyes finally focussing on a recumbent, fully clothed and hatted Martino.  What was his problem?

On the road again, a ten o’clock ferry taunted us as Belgium-plated saloons zipped past in fast and furious formation, and as Dunkirk grew closer we merged into the ubiquitous traffic of retreating Brits… the rest is history.

Fact Box

Stuart Collins & Co ( 01792 655 563) is a specialist insurance broker covering extended foreign use for UK registered cars.

The RAC ( via its website, provides a free European route planning service for those who prefer to eschew the siren call of ‘Daphne’ and her ilk.

Norfolk Line ( regularly offer the best value one way ferry crossings Dover to Dunkirk and vice versa.  Prices start from £17 for a car and four passengers.  Those in the north may want to consider DFDS ( overnight sailings from Newcastle to Amsterdam.

French budget hotels close to main arterial routes include, and Booking is recommended during peak times.  Advance rates from £24 per room per night.

Railsavers ( 0845 293 2715) has the solution for those who can travel June to September and prefer to let the train take the strain.  Autoslaap motorail trains run from Den Bosch on the Dutch Belgium border, within easy striking distance of Channel ports, to Livorno and Alessandria.  The cost of taking the car on the train is higher than self-driving but when fuel, accommodation, and fatigue are all factored in there’s a strong case to be made.  Early season prices start from £199 per car and from £74 per couchette.

My Gaff in Italy

It’s All Nick Clegg’s Fault

Dunroamin Chez Eric
Dunroamin Chez Eric

A long-awaited child-free few days in Malta with the girlfriend I married has turned into one night in Eric Tweddle’s caravan over in the Lakes.  Now, not that I have anything against Cumbria, but swapping a 5-star press junket for a night in a stationary tin tent located in England’s wettest county doesn’t seem the most equitable exchange.  OK I know, mustn’t grumble, at least we’re not stuck in Bangkok, Bishkek or  Ballarat – though two of those would at least have offered the sniff of a good story and taken my mind off the oncoming train of an impending tax bill.  I have to admit feeling not a little satisfied that the wind has now changed and those cod-swaggering sons and dottirs of Iceland are now ash-bound themselves – see how they like it.

However, all this aerial drama has spawned a thought.  How about amalgamating a few of the year’s Bank Holidays into  an annual no-fly week?  Advance notice and the occasional exception for emergencies would turn an uncomfortable and inconvenient drama into a celebration of our island nation.  Timed accordingly it’d give domestic tourism a boost, increase consumption of local-produce, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, lend those Radio 4 listeners living under a flight path the chance to listen to the Archers uninterrupted and allow pilots and cabin crew the rare chance to have a few drinks and party…  In addition, consider the collective benefit to the mental and physical health of low-cost air travellers by eschewing, even for a short time, exposure to yellow and orange aircraft cabins, just saying ‘No’ to metallised ‘baggies’ of vodka, and kicking the scratchcard-eating habit – Britain  would surely be a better place.  Perhaps I should suggest Nick Clegg adds my no-fly initiative to the Lib-Dem’s election manifesto, somewhere between pledges for a rural fuel duty discount and scrapping council tax.

Anyhow, all these televised political sideshows are enough to drive a man to Dushanbe, which is exactly where I’ll be on the 6th May.

Have a good weekend.

Weblink of the week is…

Fair Lady?

Until recently my only sighting of The Lady was a glimpse of a mid-September edition which had filtered down though the mixed media detritus of our verging-on-the-out-of-control home, to reside semi-permanently on the cistern of the downstairs lav.  This was a one off voucher copy following the placing of a speculative small ad describing our Umbrian holiday apartment.  Two enquiries resulted, each spawning a flurry of email exchanges, then… in true ‘Lady‘ style our little Italy was deemed ‘not quite what we want’.

The current television ‘documentary’ following The Lady’s travails borrows from Big Brother – new editor Rachel’s big brother is Boris Johnson – all that’s missing is a hot tub and tattoos.  ‘Pfeffel!’ I hear you say, but there  are evictions – a ‘too-loud’ literary editor was the first; housemate jungle trials – rodent infestation and leaky roofs; and then public votes where, according to Rachel, circulation figures reflect the reality of  ‘a piddling magazine that nobody cares about or buys…. (er) sorry, I didn’t mean that.’

All in all, The Lady’s gaga combination of politicking, claustrophobia, and the need to keep a straight face whilst believing in the kabala of business, makes me glad I’ve chosen freelance penury – or perhaps it’s chosen me.

See new Lady Ed Rachel Johnson’s Channel 4 interview here –